Paul Said grew up in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro.
At almost 6,000 feet above sea level, the massive but dormant volcano lies in northern Tanzania – Said’s native country – looming over the East African landscape known for its vast wilderness.
But while he may have never climbed the mountain, he reached even greater heights when he made it to the Hill.
Now in his junior year, Said – pronounced “Sai-ee-dee” – appreciates, perhaps more than most, the opportunities afforded him at Rogers State University.
“Tanzania is an economically depressed country, but very beautiful. It has the Serengeti, it has Mount Kilimanjaro, it has Lake Victoria. I used to look at Lake Victoria every morning when I would wake up,” he said. “It’s beautiful, but there is much poverty. I can honestly say I was born poor.”
Said’s hometown of Mwanza came to benefit from the presence of an American outreach organization called Mainsprings.
Originally founded as a home for orphaned and vulnerable girls, Mainsprings soon broadened its scope to impact communities through long lasting, sustainable change, providing not only refuge for abused and abandoned girls, but also quality and primary secondary education, access to rural healthcare, and economic opportunity through the development of self-sustaining agricultural ecosystems.
When the time came for the Mainsprings founder to return to the states, he brought Paul – and three of his siblings – back with him.
“It’s weird when people talk about family – what a ‘family’ is, because it means many things to many people,” Paul said. “Some people think of family as their bloodline, some people go more with emotion, some people think of it within a given structure, you know? Because I’ve lived in so many different cultures, I’ve thought about family in several different ways and when I came to America in 2015, even though my sponsor was that – my sponsor – the relationship is still like a family to me. Even though I still have family in Mwanza, I think of my sponsor like a father.”
After coming to Oklahoma, Said enrolled in school at Holland Hall in Tulsa, immersing himself in creative pursuits: art, music, dance, photography, and sports, skipping a grade along the way and graduating in 2021.
“When I was still in high school, I was recruited to play soccer for Rogers State,” he said. “I loved the campus and saw lots of potential for myself here. Even though I was very good at soccer, it was a new experience for me. I was excited but nervous, you know?”
It was around this time that Said discovered his passion for self-expression through photography and videography.
“When I graduated from high school, I took all the money people had given me as gifts and bought an expensive camera – it was the most expensive thing I ever bought – because I loved photography,” he said. “It was a decision I’ve never regretted.”
Said also tried his hand at filmmaking with the short documentary “I Can’t Breathe” about Black Lives Matter in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
“That project was very satisfying for me. I think it spoke to a lot of people at the time and the process really made me fall in love with photography, with filmmaking,” he said. “I came to RSU to play soccer, but photography and filmmaking quickly became my passion, and it was difficult for me to do both since being in athletics in America, even at the college level, takes up so much of your time.
“I played soccer my freshman year, but made the decision to quit my second semester,” he said. “That was very difficult. I had many conversations with my friends, my mom, my sponsor. Soccer had been huge to me, and many people saw my potential in it, but here I was, feeling like I really, really wanted to pursue something else. Filmmaking spoke to me. It was a confusing, difficult time for me.”
Since putting athletics behind him, Said has followed his dream, starting an organization with the goal of student empowerment through student-centric TV station, as well as his own Instagram page, RSU Contact, as well as his own production company.
Currently on track to graduate in 2025 with a degree in graphic design, Said’s thoughts are less about the future than the present as he’s “living his dream in the present.”
“I’m where I want to be, doing what I want to do. I’m already here. I don’t have to wait until after I graduate,” he said. “You know, one of my favorite things about RSU – and I have several — is the Nature Reserve. In many ways, it reminds me of where I came from. I love being there. I love to go walking through the woods and just thinking about things, reflecting on things.”
What crosses his mind on his walks?
“Rogers State has been a great location for me. It’s given me great opportunities to express myself, to be myself and to get an education that wouldn’t have been available to me otherwise,” he said. “RSU has taught me a lot, not just educationally, but about myself and I’m thankful for that every day – every day. I’m even more thankful for the RSU Foundation, without which, I wouldn’t have been able to continue to study here. I’m so thankful for the scholarship provided by the Foundation. It’s allowed me to remain a student here, which has enabled me to become the man I always envisioned I’d become and to live out my dream. I’m very thankful.”
For more information about Rogers State University’s international student program, visit www.rsu.edu/international.